Witnessing History as a First Grader

By: Neil Mufson
Mr. Mufson recounts being a fly on the wall during a turning point in history.
It was 55 years ago last week that one of my most powerful elementary school memories was formed. I was a first grader in Miss Bisbee’s class. It was a Friday afternoon.
I have written about Miss Bisbee before since she was quite memorable to begin with and loomed heavily amongst the fears of us first graders. Out of another era, she was scary and huge. She sported squat ankle-height shoes with heavy square heels, a permanent hairnet, and capacious dresses that fell to her shins. These were the days before educators devoted much time to how their students felt about things. Parents would never deign to complain about how a teacher acted. If there were any misbehavior, it was inarguably the child’s fault.
Miss Bisbee frequently yelled at us. Regularly she pinched us or stepped on our toes when we misbehaved. If we were being too “boisterous,” as she put it, she would have us stand against the wall and lean her weight into us. We were terrified when she would write “Naughty” on the blackboard, because if your name then got chalked onto the list below the dreaded word, you had to stay in from recess with her. Who knew what would happen then?
If you were particularly unlucky, you would be selected to guard the door to the child-sized bathroom in the back of our classroom while Miss Bisbee inexplicably favored those facilities rather than those dedicated to the faculty. While we all knew this could happen at any time, I believe it was largely the unpredictability of being plucked from reading group and being assigned to this noisy and doleful duty that kept our anxieties high.
But in the early afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, Miss Bisbee revealed a different side of herself that left us stunned. We had already had lunch and were working in our reading groups when the shrill BUZZ of our classroom phone screeched. Her heels clicking stolidly along the linoleum, Miss Bisbee walked with alacrity to the handset adhered to the wall between the coat rack at the front of room and the restroom. What caught our attention was her tone and these words: “What? The President of the United States? That can’t be my Jack.” And then she burst into tears; dropped the phone so that its cord bounced off the floor; and she ran from the room.
Used to a disciplined, orderly, and predictable if not macabre routine, we first graders were left alone. We looked up from our “Dick & Jane” readers with wide open eyes and stared around the room at our friends, searching for what all this meant. No one dared talk or move. We sat that way for what seemed like hours, but it was probably within a few minutes that Mr. Normandy, our principal, rushed into our classroom and told us that Miss Bisbee had heard some very bad news and that he would be staying with us until we were sent home early that day. I barely remember seeing Mr. Normandy, the man we called “Uncle Joe,” anywhere in the school, much less our classroom, so we sensed something big was afoot.
By Monday, we all returned to our classroom, Miss Bisbee included. I remember that weekend watching on live tv as Jack Ruby stepped out of the crowd to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. From what I recall, nothing was ever said in school to us kids about any of these events. But by the next fall Miss Bisbee was relieved of her teaching duties and was put in charge of the school supply closet. Then even the joy of being sent into the hallways on an errand by your teacher took on a doleful cast.

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